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We Should All Be Chief Empathy Officer

Leading tech executive and "Trampled by Unicorns" author Maëlle Gavet on how to build an empathetic company

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Illustrations concept small people creating value of partner business. via handshake deal between company. Vector illustrate.
Illustrations concept small people creating value of partner business. via handshake deal between company. Vector illustrate.

When I left the Boston Consulting Group over a decade ago, I genuinely believed that you could solve any problem with the right Gantt chart clearly defining roles, responsibilities, key performance indicators (KPIs) and deadlines. That if something wasn’t working, I just needed to work a little harder. That empathy and emotions were weaknesses and people just needed to toughen up a bit. 

It took the kind, yet relentless, feedback of people I admired and who cared about me to change my mind. Not to mention many hours of executive coaching, quite a few heartless decisions on my side that had negative repercussions that I couldn’t understand, and for my dad to be discarded like trash by the company to which he had given 18 years of his life. Eventually I was convinced that empathy had to be a baseline requirement for the companies I was leading if they were to succeed both commercially and ethically. Or, as Daniel Lubetzsky, the CEO of the snack company Kind put it: “For me, empathy is an existential question – it’s about the survival of the human race. That is, it’s imperative for us to overcome the challenges we face. Unless we can join forces and recognize each other’s humanity, how can we do business together, let alone make progress on the increasingly complex and difficult problems in society?”

It starts with the mission, vision, and values tech companies claim. Tellingly, none of the mission statements of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Uber, Airbnb or most tech companies I know for that matter (public or private) explicitly uses the word human or humanity. Microsoft comes close with its use of person in its (somewhat bland) strapline “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more . . .” While admittedly it would be more symbolic than practical, it would be an important step for them to include in their missions a constant reminder that ultimately they aspire to work for the benefit of humanity. 

The next step is to implement and live these values with empathy, which is harder than it sounds. Most tech companies I know tend to be pretty good at ‘living by their values’. But a value can be implemented with or without empathy. The same process can be designed to be human-centric or not. You can move fast (a core value of the tech world) and trample everything in your path. This will have long term implications, both human and financial, from the way your customers perceive you, to your ignorance of costly minor execution details, employee turnover or the way governments decide to regulate and fine you. Or you can move fast but just a little less fast in the short term as you think through the impact on people and the best ways to limit negative consequences. Speed at all costs is a far more expensive strategy in the long run. 

One complaint I often hear is that ‘too much’ empathy stops you from making tough decisions and results in a tendency to put the well-being of individuals above that of the business. Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as overuse of empathy that leads to decision paralysis or getting your priorities plain wrong. But I have yet to meet a tech company whose problem is too much empathy. Silo mentality, decision process complexity, lack of clear goals, inability to say ‘No’ to projects – I’ve seen these problems more times than I can count. A surfeit of empathy? Not yet. I think the people who make that argument tend to confuse ‘affective empathy’ with the cognitive variety I’m advocating. Affective empathy implies sharing, almost physically, the feelings of other people. It makes it harder to share direct feedback (you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings) and make tough calls (you want to make everybody feel good about a decision). Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, helps you understand how other people feel and think, and as a result helps you adapt your decisions and behavior accordingly; it thus enables better-informed decision-making. As a leader, you should still act in the best interest of your business, but by understanding how your decisions affect other people, both positively and negatively, you’re better able to act with clarity and decisiveness, with fewer negative side effects. 

What I find disconcerting is the quasi-absolute certitude I hear from most tech leaders I speak with that their companies are empathetic, leading them to roll their eyes when I raise many of these issues. And yet in each case, their employees have a less rose-tinted view of the empathy level at their place of work. BusinessSolver, a benefit administration technology company that publishes an annual State of Workplace Empathy study, explains that 92 percent of CEOs believe their organizations are empathetic, yet 92 percent of employees believe that empathy remains undervalued. And while 71 percent of men view organizations as a whole as empathetic, only 33 percent of women do.

From a distance highly empathetic companies act much the same as any other business, albeit with a slightly different spin. Respectful, yet more intense, questioning to understand the other perspective is the rule. Empathetic companies tend to make psychological safety a priority, embrace diversity of thought and encourage employees to ‘be themselves’ at work, which also includes being unafraid to disagree with others (although that doesn’t mean being combative). People then embrace meetings because they are places to be heard, where real issues are aired and debated.

That openness means there is less office politics, fewer silos between teams and fewer bristling egos. Company-wide communications tend to be more transparent, while HR and managers at all levels are invested in the success of employees. As people engage more with one another and are emboldened to express their disagreements, as they get creative and take risks, cross-pollination of ideas becomes common and complicated problems benefit from multiple and sometimes unexpected sources of expertise.

The empathy-led company believes that its long term commercial success is intimately linked to the environment around it, whether that’s the immediate community in which it operates, the country that provides infrastructure without which the business couldn’t function, or ultimately the planet. It tends to be purpose-led and develop thorough sustainability programs and long term plans. As a result, employees are highly engaged, and often excited to come to work.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Trampled by Unicorns by Maëlle Gavet. Copyright ©2021 by MaëlleGavet. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

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